WoodGreen Workers Strike
By Ryan Lum
Workers at WoodGreen Community Services, a Toronto social services provider, went on strike Oct. 9 after being without a contract since April, 2014.
Members of Workers United Local 154 have been picketing the company’s offices on Danforth Avenue in Toronto’s East End, voicing their concerns over part-time staff benefits, work conditions and pay for personal support workers (PSWs). This is the first time WoodGreen workers have voted for strike action since forming a union in 2004.
Workers United representative Adrie Naylor says bargaining has been marred by sexism and condescension. She reports, “Their negotiating team would say things such as ‘you ladies might not understand collective bargaining,’ and other forms of disrespect.”
A 1.25 per cent wage increase offer came after members voted 96 per cent to reject an initial offer of a 1 per cent annual increase. In order to keep pace with the cost of living, workers would need to receive a 2.3 per cent raise.
“What they offered us was insulting,” says Tammy Harnett, a member of the eight-woman bargaining team. “Not only was the raise insufficient, their offer did not include any benefits for part-time staff.”
The offer is a sharp contrast to the increases received by the organization’s senior management. WoodGreen President and CEO Brian Smith made $204,094.60 in 2013, an increase of 4.5 per cent from the previous year. In 2013, WoodGreen had eight members of its administrative team on Ontario’s Sunshine List of public servants who make more than $100,000.
In 2013, WoodGreen had eight members of its administrative team on Ontario’s Sunshine List of public servants who make more than $100,000.
Despite WoodGreen’s insistence that it cannot offer workers a higher raise, WoodGreen’s public funding increased between 2013 and 2014.
WoodGreen has been servicing Toronto’s East End for 77 years, beginning as a United Church-run social services centre and expanding to become an independent entity providing housing, immigrant settlement, senior, childcare, health and employment services.
WoodGreen now has over 600 workers at 32 locations in Toronto, serving more than 30,000 clients annually.
Currently, WoodGreen has hired replacement workers, although Workers United is uncertain about the numbers, or at which locations they are being used.
As it has expanded, workers have cited a shift in how the service provider is conceived of by management. “They’ve become much more corporate,” says Harnett. “The newer managers think of this as a for-profit company rather than a nonprofit social service provider.”
In 2012, Robert Wesley, former labour relations chief at aerospace and transportation company Bombardier Inc., became vice-president human resources at WoodGreen. At Bombardier, Wesley presided over the use of low-paid contract labour when the collective agreement with the Canadian Auto Workers prescribed the use of unionized skilled trades work.
Felicia, a PSW who asked to have only her first name published, says that as workers were voting on strike action, the company began a campaign of intimidation. “They circulated a letter saying that we would agree to return to work under their terms.” She says that several of her colleagues feared for their jobs and have continued working, “But I know my rights and I know that we can go out on strike.”
“Management has tried to paint the picture that if workers cared about the clients they would be at work,” she says. “But this ignores reality, such as ECEs [early childhood educators] without sick days regularly being forced to expose children to illness, or injured PSWs being unable to give clients their utmost care.”
95 per cent of WoodGreen education staff are registered ECEs. Many workers are fluent in another language, allowing them to serve non-English speaking clients.
When ECEs are overworked, they are less capable of providing quality education for children accessing the services. ECEs must provide constant attention to clients.
“With the increasing corporatization of the non-profit sector, management feels they can underpay workers who are predominantly women of colour. By striking, these workers are fighting the trend toward austerity and precarious labour.”
Navjeet Sidhu, an organizer with Workers United, says the strike is emblematic of greater struggles for access to social services. “With the increasing corporatization of the non-profit sector, management feels they can underpay workers who are predominantly women of colour. By striking, these workers are fighting the trend toward austerity and precarious labour.”
When asked whether she felt nervous about going on strike for the first time, Harnett replied, “I’m not worried at all. This was not a very engaged union, but it has become one since bargaining started in April. I feel strong and confident.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly reported that the strike began on Oct. 15. We regret the error.